Much of the 40 million tonnes of electronic waste produced around the world — old smartphones, TVs, laptops and obsolete kitchen appliances — finds its way illegally to Asia and Africa every year, says a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Close to 90 per cent of the world’s electronic waste — worth nearly $19 billion — is illegally traded or dumped each year, to destinations half way across the world. While the European Union the U.S. and Japan are the primary origins of e-waste shipments, China, India, Malaysia and Pakistan are the main destinations, says the report. In Africa, Ghana and Nigeria are the biggest recipients of e-waste.
Illegal trade is driven by the relatively low costs of shipment and the high costs of treatment in the developed countries. Quoting an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study, the UNEP report says that exporting e-waste to Asia worked out 10 times cheaper than processing it in within these countries.
The Indian subcontinent has turned into an important destination for European waste. This goes beyond e-waste to include household waste, metals, textiles and tires — which are exported to India and Pakistan, says the report “Waste Crimes, Waste Risks: Gaps and Challenges in the Waste Sector.”
“There is a significant trade in compressors to Pakistan. These should be depolluted prior to export, but waste operators seeking to avoid expense often omit this step,” the report notes.
‘Toxic time bomb’
The vast majority of illegal e-waste ends up in landfills, incinerators, and in ill-equipped recycling facilities. “The waste is dumped in areas where local residents and workers disassemble the units and collect whatever is of value… What is not reusable is simply dumped as waste, creating immense problems and leading to what has been described as a ‘toxic time bomb’.”
While Europe and North America are by far the largest producers of e-waste, Asia’s cities are fast catching up as consumers of electronic goods and as generators of e-waste. In China, for instance, 73.9 million computers, 0.25 billion mobile phones, and 56.6 million televisions were sold in 2011, the report says. Forecasts say that in just two years, the total quantum of e-waste generated around the world will be 50 million tonnes.